Elvin’s Bee, and Natural Beekeeping

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Elvin, a local beekeeper who has found me a model for my bee and lavender painting, a deceased little worker bee, just perfect for some studies for the painting.
It was particularly interesting to meet Elvin because he is a “natural “ beekeeper and builds Top Bar and Warre hives, in which the bees build their own combs.


Picture of Abbe Warre with his hive from Biobee site

This is the wonderful Abbe Emile Warre who developed the hive also known as “The People’s Hive”. There is a super site called biobees.com where you can find extremely comprehensive info all about Warre hives.
It is written and compiled by David Heaf , see more here. It’s an interesting story about a kind man who wanted to develop a simple, natural, bee friendly hive.

He apparently experimented with over 300 different types of hive before coming up with a top bar hive which basically allows bees to do what they do naturally and build their own combs.
There is a lot more to it than that of course…go and read more, it’s fascinating!

From Elvin’s site Majorbeehives.com you can order one of the beautifully simple Top bar or Warre hives and here is photo from his site of a Warre hive in the snow, reminding me just how cold it can be in the UK.

hive in snow

Elvins snowy beehive. He has some wonderful photos of the natural combs too..

top bar

I am going to read more about natural beekeeping. If/when I eventually have a house or a garden I will be very tempted to have one of these bee friendly homes.

top bar h

Some busy happy bees arriving with some very full pollen baskets to Elvin’s Top Bar hive yesterday.
There was also some sun, unlike today which has been relentlessly cold and miserable.. that’s the East coast for you! I asked him where his bees would be foraging now..where else but on ivy of course.


And today I found some more ivy with more ivy bees, wasps and honey bees. The ivy is also festooned with many spiders webs, those big fat spiders that come out in Autumn (photos to come).

I spent quite a long time rescuing a couple of honey bees from the sticky webs.
A wasp had already been wrapped up and stored for later…oh dear. The bees took some time to rid themselves of the remnants of the web but eventually flew away just fine. I am rather hoping they were Elvin’s bees.

Elvin’s Honey Bee Sketches. It’s a while since I drew a bee so I wanted to make a few studies. Little honey bees have endearing heart shaped faces and rather attractive spiky hair on the top of their heads.

elvins beebg

Bees, Flowers and “Project Lavender”.

The lavender here in the south is still going strong which is good because  I have a lovely commission to paint a honeybee with some lavender. They do go together so well don’t they?
I have been quite taken with the many different varieties of  lavender that I have seen growing in peoples gardens locally and all bee lovers know that lavender is a top bee magnet. It is included in all the bee friendly plant lists… but who knows how accurate the lists are??

Project Lavender

To address the rather random collections of hearsay, The University of Sussex is doing an interesting trial this year to find out which garden flowers are really the very best value for bees and other pollinators with an emphasis on urban, garden and park plantings. They are looking particularly at lavender, 14 different types to be precise.
The project is called appropriately “Project Lavender” Here is a quote from their site

“late summer and autumn are difficult times for honey bees to find forage, as opposed to spring, when most plants are blooming. Therefore, lavender was chosen for its late flowering period. Fourteen popular varieties of lavender to be tested in this experiment were recommended by Downderry Nursery… In addition, other common garden plants will be tested, such as geranium, nasturtium, dahlia, borage and others. The results of this experiment will help people make well-informed choices for their bee-friendly gardens, helping not only honey bees, but also bumblebees and other pollinators facing current declines.

The project started in May and you can read more about it here. Endearingly, they are also looking at

“..the efficacy of hedges or lattice fences around an apiary in reducing stinging, by forcing bees to fly high, thereby reducing collisions with humans.
key aim of this research is to provide information that will allow honey bees to be kept in allotments, thereby providing urban beekeepers places to keep hives and at the same time providing pollination.”

Nice! I am not entirely sure about the policy on bees and allotments, it seems to vary.  Below: Dad’s unnamed lavender in July just beginning to blossom..spot the red tailed bumble bee.

dads lavender

Downderry Nursery has a site full of lavenders and lavender info. I had no idea there were so many different classifications. At the Nursery they breed new species and also tip their hat at the enthusiastic contribution made by bees.

“we’re often surprised by the wonderful plants produced by open pollinated ‘breeding’, courtesy of bees!

Thanks to their nice site I now know my bracteole from my calyx. Their plant pages are beautiful shade cards of pinks, mauves, purples and blues, with wonderful names like Twickel Purple, Miss Muffet, Night of Passion and Walberton’s Silver Edge.


I haven’t got very far with the painting due to relocation ups and  downs.. but we have decided that this little honey bee, flying in amongst the lavender, will be carrying a nice full load of pollen, because Debbie, my patient client is a beekeeper!

Rough sketch for bee with lavender:

bee 2 sm

The Hardworking Honey Bee: Apis mellifera

I am getting very short of time as all 16 bees have to be in the post today along with a small book, luckily my painting is slightly ahead of my posting. I was so caught up in discovering the “other bees” that I almost forgot to include a Honey Bee in this set.

The trouble with writing about the Honey Bee is where to start and when to finish. Should it be about their incredibly organised society, their complicated navigation systems, the delightful waggle dance, or their gift to us of delicious honey.. and that’s without even considering honey bee lore, superstition and symbolism. All that will have to wait for next year.

Hmmm.. I am afraid that this bee thing will not come to an end at Christmas, as I now have a couple more projects to do and will be getting back to my bee books, cards and more paintings.

But I may take a short break.. unlike the Florida Honey Bees who I saw only yesterday, busy in the Rose Garden at Leu. With flowers still abundant and temperatures mild they carry on regardless. Northern bees are not so lucky and may have to overwinter in some very harsh conditions.  Today I am reading of heavy snow in the UK and thinking about friends, family and bees.

Winter Snuggling for the Honey Bee.

Snowed up, frozen conditions are not good for bees. Apart from hoping for a warm break, warm enough for the bees to leave the hive to attend their own call of nature, there is the problem of keeping warm.
Hives can be wrapped and insulated but the bees have to work hard at keeping warm.
Here is a seasonal passage from “Winter for the Bee-Keeper”  a chapter from Stephens Buchman’s excellent “Letters from the Hive”.

“Throughout the long cold months, the bees congregate in what is called the winter cluster, a tight sphere of bee bodies forty thousand strong usually located near their stored cache of honey. They are literally huddling to keep warm. Its called thermoregulation, and the bees are expert at it.
By eating honey then shivering their flight muscles without moving their wings they can raise their internal body temperature significantly.
Revving their mini engines keeps not only individual bees warm but their neighbors as well. The temperature will not dip below 68 degrees F within the cluster. When bees in the outermost layers start feeling chilly they push their way deep into the centre, the warmest part of the cluster. Wouldn’t you?”

 beehive in snow

A snowy UK beehive from the Derbyshire Daisybank Apiaries, in the UK here.
I know I have some beekeepers amongst my readers, I wonder how you are doing this winter? I am off to the post office now… all we have here is heavy rain…


Bee No16: the Honey Bee: Apis mellifera

honey bee

Watercolour on Arches HP 300, image size 3.5 inches.

Number 2 Bee

After some more research and finding both helpful, unhelpful and plainly inaccurate diagrams of bees and their anatomy, I put together my own rough sketch. Drawing definitely helps me to remember things.
With a little more understanding I was able to make more sense of the tangle of legs and the curled bodies, which are difficult to analyze without a microscope. I have learnt some curious things too.

Bees have 5 eyes… lucky things, 2 compound eyes and 3 extra small ones on top of their head called ocelli. They also have hairy tongues, in fact their mouths are incredibly complicated and multifunctional. As I am drinking my tea I am trying to make some comparisons. I think we humans have been sold short.

bee sketch anatomy

So I have painted another of Joe’s bees, this one much darker than the one I drew in pencil. I am amazed at the variety of colours and furriness.
I have tried not to get involved with my models, after all, these are dead bees, but having to look so closely, trying to understand how they are put together, I have inevitably become fond of them.
To see them so small and helpless, some with their little tongues out, to hold their weightless tiny papery bodies while trying to unravel some of their mysteries, is to get involved.
I was OK until I drew the eye.. but as soon as you draw an eye on something it has a personality. I am trying not to give this one a name. How very beautiful and delicate it is…
I do have 9 more and tomorrow I might try the euglossa bee… but there again I might not… it looks difficult.


Joe’s Bees

Yesterday we had the pleasure of a brief visit with Joe who is a local beekeeper and who runs Dansk Farms here in Orlando.

For the last few weeks I have been doing some background research into honey bees and wanted a bee to draw. I returned with 9 honey bees and one beautiful irridescent orchid bee which Joe had found for me, all carefully packed for the short trip in their own neat little crate. It’s actually a queen bee transporter, roomy enough for a diminutive royal and normally well equipped with candy.

My little bees were not, I hasten to add, alive.


I had met Joe a couple of weeks ago at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market, where he sells not only the 100% pure honey, but bees wax, and lovely honey based bath and body products.
It was completely fascinating to see the workings of one of the hives which at 9.00 am was busy. Joe’s particular bees are gentle and goodnatured, a cross between Buckfasts and Carniolans and so a mixture of dark and lighter coloured bees.

Their joint characteristics make them good all round bees, docile, disease resistant, good producers and good housekeepers. (The story of Brother Adam and the Buckfast bee needs another dedicated post). There is so much to know and admire about bees and I am just at the beginning.

joes hives      frame 1

I had not realised that the honey bee was not a native species in the USA. The bees that Joe keeps, as with most of honey bees in the USA, are descended from the European Honey bee, Apis Mellifera.

Bees were probably introduced into Florida by the Spanish but the first documented arrival of bees from Europe is from a letter dated December 5, 1621 by the Council of the Virginia Company in London and addressed to the Governor and Council in Virginia. It was a motley cargo.

Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [divers] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]; the preservation & encrease whereof we respond vnto you…” (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532).

The Discovery (60 tons, Thomas Jones, captain, and twenty persons) left England November 1621 and arrived in Virginia March 1622. from “Honey Bees Across America” By Brenda Kellar

And the name ..

The genus Apis is Latin for “bee”, and mellifera comes from Latin melli- “honey” and ferre “to bear” — hence the scientific name means “honey-bearing bee”. The name was coined in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus who, realizing that the bees do not bear honey, but nectar, tried later to correct it to Apis mellifica (“honey-making bee”) in a subsequent publication. However, according to the rules of synonymy in zoological nomenclature, the older name has precedence. Wikipedia

I have never looked in such detail at a honey bee before. These little bees are a variety of colours and delightfully hairy, even the eyes are hairy. I am sad they are dead but the practicalities of trying to draw live bees in such detail would try the patience of even Joe’s docile bees.

I am hoping to make a good detailed painting but before I do I need to understand a bit more about their anatomy. For now, some studies. My models and sketchpad

.bee sketchessms     sketch blog